Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Weight of the Sunrise - Vylar Kaftan

Vylar Kaftan's The Weight of the Sunrise recently won the Nebula Award in the novella category. Of all the nominated works in the three short fiction categories I've only read Aliette de Bodard's The Waiting Stars (winner in the novelette category). Most years I manage to do a bit better. As usual many of the stories have been made available online so last week I decided to give Kaftan's story a go  (it can be read here). It was first published in the February issue of Asimov's. As far as I know there are no other publications yet. It's the first story by this author I've read. Her website tells me there has been a steady stream of short fiction since her first publication in 2004 but no collections or novels yet. Quite a lot of it is available to read online. I may have to have a look at some of it later this year.

The Weight of the Sunrise is an alternative history, set in a world where Pizzaro's men got butchered by an overwhelmingly large Inca army. The Inca state never collapsed, and although it suffered greatly from epidemics of old world diseases, it has managed to stay independent. The story is related by Lanchi Ronpa, an old man, telling his grandson about the events in the year 1806, when a diplomat from the British North American colonies comes to offer a vaccine for the smallpox. For a considerable price.

I'm very impressed with the way Kaftan created her alternative history. The author obviously put in a lot of thought on how an empire could survive the onslaught of new diseases, a serious drop in population and the pressure of the colonial powers that, despite Pizzaro's defeat, must have been present. Although the main character doesn't seem to know much of what goes on outside the borders of the empire, what we do catch, suggests that the changes are not limited to South America. As with any good alternative history, I wish the scope of the story had been larger so we'd get to see more of this timeline. Maybe Kaftan will return to it in other works. There certainly seems more than enough material for further exploration.

The social structure of this nineteenth century Inca state is explored in a bit more detail. Especially the way religion and politics are interwoven is explored in detail. Lanchi is afraid to be caught up in this political game he doesn't know how to play. His responses to practices like human sacrifice and slavery are interesting in particular. He is a product of his culture and tells his story according to his values.

The young main character may not know much about the world, but the much older narrator does. It's a clever bit of story telling, allowing the author to work in a bit of pride and false modesty, as well as courage and love for his family and a strong sense of justice. Throughout the story you get the impression he presents himself as a bit more naive than he really is. He is, in other words, a classic example of the unreliable narrator.

What will make or break this story for the reader is how much you are willing to forgive Lanchi for glossing over the flaws of his own society. The Inca seem a bit too benevolent to be believed. It is of course impossible to tell how their society would have developed in the two-and-a-half centuries that separate the fall of the historical empire and the events in this tale. Or, for that matter, how true the accounts of the Spanish sources describing the Inca were. Some readers will find Kaftan's version implausible or too western. I think she can get away with this, as long as you are prepared not to trust Lanchi too much. It is a piece that will most likely be good for some debate though. Which in itself is not a bad thing for a story.

I haven't read any of the other nominees so I can't really say if it was a deserved win. I do understand why this story was nominated though. The alternative time line is fascinating in my opinion. It is the aspect that carries this story really. I was done with Lanchi's tale when I had reached the end of his tale but the world itself left me hungry for more. If alternative history has your interest this is definitely a story you should read.

Book Details
Title: The Weight of the Sunrise
Author: Vylar Kaftan
Pages: 31
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: E-book
First published: 2013

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